The word ‘eugenics’ is derived from the Greek eugenes, meaning ‘well-born’. The term was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist and cousin of Charles Darwin. An internationally recognized ideology, that sought to dictate population demographics through selective reproduction, eugenics deemed certain members of society either ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’ for procreation. As a result, the theory took two forms. The first was ‘positive eugenics’, which encouraged the production of fit offspring through programs such as “fitter families” competitions. The second was ‘negative eugenics’, which was implemented through policies of institutionalization and sterilization. Eugenics was promoted by social reformers from W.E.B. Du Bois to Margaret Sanger throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but was widely denounced only in the wake of its explicitly genocidal deployment by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
One of the eugenicists’ explicit goals was the eradication of mental and physical ‘defects’, or disabilities, often through the oppressive policies of negative eugenics. For many Americans, eugenics was also a racist enterprise. White eugenicists not only opposed the procreation of people of color and immigrants, while encouraging that of white people, but they also posited the erasure of disability within their race as a step towards achieving white supremacy.
Despite this heavy-handed dialogue, sexual performance is an afterthought after watching Nugenix advertisements. As suggested by the brand’s selection of a former professional athlete as its public face, the supplement’s primary aim is to increase athletic performance. Since 2016, advertisements for the supplement have featured Thomas working out in a gym. “Thanks to Nugenix”, he reports while lifting weights, “I’m really getting after it again”. These spots specifically target men over forty who, according to the voice-over narration, are producing less testosterone than in the past. As a male actor tells Thomas in a locker room scene, from a 2017 commercial, “I just can’t stay in shape like I used to.” Nugenix is branded as a solution to the hindrance aging poses to men’s pursuit of physical fitness. It can help them get “stronger, leaner, with a lot more energy and drive” and, apparently, facilitate the results they seek from their workouts.
But what does exercise have to do with eugenics?
On the surface, exercise and eugenics are bonded by shared rhetoric: both strive for ‘fitness’, but claim to posit slightly different meanings of the term. In reality, the link between the two can be further traced to the era of eugenics’s origin. As the theory gained popularity in the late nineteenth century, it became entwined with another international social movement that sought to regulate the body: physical culture. From the mid-nineteenth century on, physical culture advocates insisted that developing a strong, ‘vigorous’ body through carefully regimented exercises was a moral imperative. The movement was by no means homogenous, as physical culture enthusiasts adopted and promoted a range of exercise styles and strategies. Consistent, however, was the desire to improve human physiology on a large scale, a mission compatible with that of eugenics.
Eugenics and physical culture shared a commitment to “producing a race of normal, sound, healthy and vigorous individuals” (2416). Macfadden adopted an explicitly eugenicist framework, explaining that “there are, indeed, several important special conditions or qualities which make for parental unfitness” (2423). Physical culture’s exercise strategies offered potential interventions for such “conditions”. While physical culture methods might not have been prescribed to treat diagnosed ‘idiocy’, a condition feared by eugenicists. Some believed that physical fitness, achieved through exercise, could mitigate the possibility that individuals—and women in particular—would produce undesirable, disabled offspring.
Regardless of whether the marketing team behind Nugenix sought to convey this history or unwittingly conjured it, the product’s evocative name and advertisements resonate with the pursuit of human enhancement that has pervaded U.S. history. By bringing exercise back into conversation with eugenics, these commercials highlight the perpetuation of a discourse that posits both the aesthetics, and abilities, attributed to physical fitness as not only desirable, but also compulsory, as even the inevitable onset of aging becomes no excuse for underperforming in this arena. That’s not to say that exercise is an inherently eugenicist activity. On the contrary, many people use physical activity as a way to develop a better relationship with their own unique body, or see it as a site for community building. What a critical consideration of Nugenix does suggest is the importance of recognizing the sociocultural forces such as consumerism and advertising that continue to posit individual bodies as either ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’.
1. Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Eugenics.” Keywords for Disability Studies, Ed. Benjamin Reiss, Rachel Adams, and David Serlin. NYU Press, 2015, pp. 83-88.
2. Salazar, James B. Bodies of Reform: The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America. New York University Press, 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.
3. Macfadden, Bernarr. Macfadden’s Encyclopedia of Physical Culture, Vol. V. Physical Culture Publishing Company, 1912.
4. Lamp, Sharon. “‘It Is For The Mother’: Feminists’ Rhetorics of Disability During the American Eugenics Period.” Disability Studies Quarterly 26.4 (2006): n. pag. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.